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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, April 7, 2008


I had read the 1934-36 stories from Milton Caniff's classic TERRY AND THE PIRATES in various arrangements before this, but IDW's big 2007 collection of all the strips for these three years makes for heady reading. Although a couple of indie comics-authors have chosen to view the blossoming of the adventurous comic-strip as a decided comedown for the comics medium, it's clear to me that the early adventure-strips-- exemplified by TERRY, PRINCE VALIANT, TARZAN and DICK TRACY-- represent an elaboration and deepening of that medium's storytelling potential. The adventure-strips may have been born of cultural myths that became less and less believable by the 1950s, so that thereafter the themes of the adventure-genre could only find expression in the related medium of the comic book (however mixed the results). But even knowing that newspaper comics could never have sustained such myths, even knowing that the medium would eventually revert back to the gag-strips of its beginnings (YELLOW KID, meet DILBERT), I can't comprehend any critic with half a brain not appreciating the high adventure of Caniff's TERRY.

Most of Caniff's sequences follow a pretty basic pattern. Footloose adventurer Pat Ryan and his boy sidekick Terry go gallivanting in some part of a post-dynastic China controlled by various warlords (the "pirates" of the title). They get caught by some warlord and then have to resort to assorted strategies, both comic and daring, to keep themselves alive before making a Great Escape. This pattern allowed Caniff to toss in lots of jokes to keep the overall mood light, which may be viewed as Caniff's way of keeping some appeal with the audience that still mostly liked their funnies for the gags. Anyone looking for the sometimes heavy-handed political ideology of Caniff's later STEVE CANYON will look in vain: though the navies of Britain and the U.S. are around, hovering like emissaries of a more rational world-order, here Caniff generally uses the forces of the West as little more than cavalry. An exception here is a 1936 sequence that has Ryan venturing into Steve Canyon's regular territory when Ryan elects to play spy for the British government. This sequence was the harbinger of the less footloose paths the strip would take during the years of WWII, but most of the stories here are still focused on glamorous, sublimely-nonsensical adventure.

There are fair criticisms one can make of Caniff's opus. The racial stereotyping must be acknowledged, though it's always qualified by the fact that Caniff's most mythic character-- far more so than his two American protagonists-- is a woman usually identified as Chinese (though possibly intended to be Eurasian in origin, like Fu Manchu's half-Chinese, half-Russian daughter). I refer to the Dragon Lady, who is one of the more formidable femmes in any of the popular media of the 1930s. Aside from having her speak less than perfect English in her first appearance, Caniff thereafter always characterizes as courageous and possessed of a razor-sharp intellect. The character deserves to inspire much more allegiance from comic-book feminists & fangirls than she does presently-- more so than Caniff's rather routine heroines (Normandie Drake and a couple of other forgettables in this volume) and his trademark "shady lady" Burma. Arguably Caniff did far more versions of Burma throughout his many years on both TERRY and STEVE CANYON, but to my knowledge he never did another female character as formidable as the Dragon Lady.

As a "realistic" adventure-author, Caniff does not evoke mythology very seriously, but he does use a myth to suggest how the Dragon Lady, despite her gender, might have advanced to the position of leading a band of male pirates. In a 12-15-35 strip, comic relief "China-boy" Connie asks the imprisoned villainess as to why she's called "the Dragon Lady." In answer she relates that "when the last actual dragons were killed their evil spirits were preserved in other living things," and then seriously asserts that she is a dragon in truth. The last panels then provide a comic set-up at Connie's expense, where Connie's pet goat contrives to drink gasoline and eat matches, resulting in its "fire-breathing." It's not much of a joke, and I doubt that the story was ever referenced again, but it seems feasible that Caniff had some notion of the Dragon Lady using such a myth-tale to manipulate her superstitious underlings.

BATMAN fans may enjoy some of the similarity between the first Dragon Lady tale and the first few stories where Batman and Robin encounter Catwoman. Both stories have a stalwart mature hero and his preteen sidekick encountering a formidable female who makes no bones about wanting to jump the bones of said mature hero. The kid-hero then becomes a sort of Jiminy Cricket to his mentor, advising him to steer clear of such dangerous shores, or even interrupting a potential lovemaking scene (as in TERRY's 1-6-35 strip). As a character, DC's Catwoman is originally closer to the mold of TERRY's other shady lady, Burma, in being an independent adventuress without a pocket-army at her command, but after a while Catwoman also attracts a coterie of the usual hero-fighting henchmen, though she never quite attains the Dragon Lady's reputation for ruthlessness.

While the campy interpretation of these goings-on might suggest sexual jealousy on the part of Terry and/or Robin, it seems a lot more likely, given the targeted readers, that the only love Terry and/or Robin feared losing was the love of adventure, if their mature mentors got themselves entrapped by the coils of Venus. Notably, though, Terry doesn't seem to have a problem with Pat hooking up with a less "fatale" femme like the aforementioned Normandie Drake, whereas Robin always seemed threatened by any feminine incursion. But maybe this had something to do with the comic books heroes existing in a hermetic isolation, where no one ever aged, while some comic strips did allow for advancing years. Some commentaries (on strips I have not read) even assert that Terry eventually "takes over" from Ryan in the department of romancing the dangerous Dragon Lady-- which, if true, would be a lot more Oedipal than I would expect of a Caniff comic strip.

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